Launched in 2017, Britbox is a streaming service dedicated to bringing the best of BBC and ITV fare to the United States. Soumya Sriraman (first name rhymes with “home ya” and surname is pronounced Sree-rah-man), President of Britbox North America, sits down for an extensive discussion of the company that brings an enormous amount of British television to U.S. viewers.
ASSIGNMENT X: What made U.K. TV networks BBC and ITV decide to join hands and create Britbox?
SOUMYA SRIRAMAN: It kind of had to be done. The thing that both BBC and ITV have done for a long time is to create and broadcast fantastic programming. Over the years, they’ve both brought some of those shows to the U.S., and it goes to a variety of partners. PBS has some, Netflix, BBC America, Discovery, A&E in the olden days – everyone had some version of these programs. E! cornered some of them. I think it only made sense for the two behemoths of British television, if you will, to say, “It makes sense for us to bring this programming home. Let’s make sure that this is the place where we bring people to for the best British television.”
AX: Britbox also streams a lot of British soaps, like EASTENDERS and EMMERDALE, that used to be carried on PBS back in the day …
SRIRAMAN: Linear networks, because of the way you have to transcode and [time the airings], are always at a delay. For some of the things, the rights are always difficult to keep them on for a long time. I don’t even know how many seasons of EASTENDERS there are. It would be impossible to put them all on Britbox. So we thought, at the very least, what we could do is bring it to you real time, keep [each episode] up there for a few weeks – I think we actually have them up for two months – and then they fall off. And at least you can keep up with that. In some of these cases, because I was watching EASTENDERS on PBS several years back, and I stopped. Then I came to the BBC, and of course I had access to BBC, and I could watch the shows. And I felt like I could never get into it, because I wanted to catch up from where I’d left off, and didn’t have the patience. What’s fascinating is, with Britbox, I’m like, “Okay, forget all of that. I’m going to start where it is now.” And now I’m on a new rhythm.
AX: I’m guessing there was an obvious demand for a service like Britbox before they decided to go forward with it.
SRIRAMAN: For sure. Again, we’ve known forever, and everyone knows, that there is a demand, when we’ve seen how our shows have performed on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. You take that, with the fact that you know that some of these great catalogue shows, you can only get them one at a time. There’s no way that Hulu, for example, is going to carry the breadth of British shows for a long time to come. They’re going to cycle out. But we can.
AX: How did you personally become involved with Britbox?
SRIRAMAN: I was with BBC Worldwide for about six years, and this was one of the business plans that I’ve worked on in my previous job, and it became a joint venture, and now I’m exclusively on Britbox.
AX: Who is the audience for Britbox?
SRIRAMAN: I think British television is today a subgenre unto itself. British television, whether it’s sci-fi, whether it’s comedy, whether it is drama, whether it’s mystery, all have a very unique binding. I think that if you were in the U.K., that’s probably not unique to you. That’s what you live every single day. Whereas in the rest of the world, that thing that binds it all together is what’s unique. And I think that’s why Britbox probably makes sense to the rest of the world.
AX: This may be an impossible question, but do you have any definition of what viewers are looking at when they go, “Ah, British television”?
SRIRAMAN: I have a theory that it’s everything from, I’m going to call very real actors – “You’re not a pretty model, you’re very real.” The other thing that I think is the characters are so well formed and well defined in arcs. I think American shows go from plot to plot, whereas British shows want the characters to breathe. And British shows [usually have a sole creator/writer], whereas American shows [usually] have writers’ rooms.
AX: So you have absolute access to everything in both the BBC and ITV libraries. Is it at your discretion how long shows stay on, or whose decision is that?
SRIRAMAN: That’s our programming decision. That’s something that we talk about. Of course, our desire is to be able to offer a lot of these programs forever. But I also think that after awhile, for the user, it starts to look like, I’m looking at the same stuff over and over again. My experience with another streaming service that shall remain unnamed right now is after two years or three years, I went, “I’m seeing the same shows. Yes, there are new shows coming in, but they don’t see as interesting or as relevant to me.” So it’s important to put the right volume, the right mix of shows into the top of the funnel as it is to make sure that you can find the funnel, feeling relatively curated and relevant.
AX: How do you break up material into categories?
SRIRAMAN: Today what we do is, we’ve got I’d say three distinct buckets at Britbox. We’ve gor Britbox Premiere, which is our new shows. Britbox Now is where CASUALTY and EASTENDERS [and other soaps are], but then something like VERA can also be in Now, because it also happens to be a day and date debut. We debuted it within hours of its U.K. launch, so it was in Premieres, and it’s in Now. We [had] the Chelsea Flower Show, which has been incredible for us. Every year, there is a special member of the Royal Family who puts together a garden. Princess Kate [did] the garden this year. Last year, it was Queen Elizabeth the Second. So every year, there’s someone else. It’s very exciting for us to be able to have it live, have it day and date. It’s never been done here. It has always been on BBC1. The challenge that we’ve always had is, the technology has never made it possible to carry these kinds of shows. Sports is carried everywhere on a live basis, because that’s what everyone assumes. But when you’re thinking of a flower show, a quiz show, who really cares about carrying it live? Well, we do.
The other thing that we’re doing [on Britbox Now] is GOOD MORNING, BRITAIN, which is Piers Morgan’s morning show, which airs on ITV in the morning, and they run it as a three-hour block. We asked them to do take that, cut it down for us. It’s an hour-and-a-half some days, some days it’s an hour and twenty minutes. We’re not running on a clock, so that’s been an amazing experience for us. And we have our Britbox Classics, which is where eventually everything goes, like classic DOCTOR WHO.
AX: Do other streaming services that have had BBC and ITV content still have the ability to license that content?
AX: So there are some things that are available on both Britbox and on Hulu, for example …
SRIRAMAN: That’s right. Some of the deals are exclusive, some are, I call them “staggered windows,” some are early windows. There’s every version of those. The thing that we are very clear about is, this is a destination for British programming. It’s not the exclusive home of everything, but it’s the exclusive home for many of the shows.
AX: While Britbox gets the bulk of its content from BBC and ITV, you also commission some programs jointly with them, like THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO, which I think was one of the first Britbox originals …
SRIRAMAN: Correct. So it’s called BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO. It’s not quite Season 3, because it’s a new set-up. It picks up where the old one left off. You’ve got our code-breakers now in 1956 San Francisco.
AX: Once BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO got up and running, did you feel pride of creation?
SRIRAMAN: Oh, gosh, absolutely. Because it’s one of those things you want to bring to fruition. You’re worried about so many things. It’s a British IP, set in America, shot in Canada, and you’re worried about how all of it turns out. And you start seeing the rushes, and you go, “It feels fine, but what if the episode doesn’t come together?”
AX: You don’t put on everything from the BBC and ITV, you just put on the programming that you think is particularly good. When you don’t want something, what is the criteria for not wanting it?
SRIRAMAN: It could be that it just doesn’t fit in our schedule. And sometimes we say, it doesn’t feel British enough to us. And there are times that I’ve said no to a show because I’ve said, “I just don’t have the capacity right now.” Sometimes it’s money. I’d say more often than not, for us, it needs to be authentically British, and authentically from our parents, from BBC and ITV. I think those are our first filters.
When you commission something as a Britbox original, are you looking at, “What are we lacking in the pipeline?”
SRIRAMAN: Absolutely. We look at gaps, and that’s the hard thing, right? Unfortunately, you know what you have that the BBC and ITV are either producing, airing, distributing. You try to map it out. Sometimes you have broadcast dates, sometimes you don’t. You’ll see what looks like a gap, and the chances are, that week, everything gets announced, and it’s all in the same genre [laughs]. And then you go, “Now what do I do?” And move things around.
AX: Do you have genres that that you’re particularly excited about, as a producer, as a viewer?
SRIRAMAN: I’m a sucker for a good murder mystery. If I could make another BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, I would.
AX: Well, presumably, you can, can’t you?
SRIRAMAN: Yes, that’s correct. I presumably can. We’re absolutely talking about it. I’m looking at where the calendar is and all of that.
AX: Can you talk about some of your other Britbox originals?
SRIRAMAN: We’ve got DARK HEART, with Tom Riley and Charlotte Riley [the actors are not related to one another]. The pilot aired in the U.K. [in 2017]. When we saw the pilot, we were like, “Is it getting commissioned for a second show?” And they’re like, “We hadn’t thought about that.” And we were like, “Okay, we’re in.” It’s dark, it’s very dark. It goes into places that felt uncomfortable, but you can easily see how the characters could go there.
AX: What can you say about LIVING THE DREAM?
SRIRAMAN: It is a fish out of water story, where a British family moves to Florida to find the Florida sun, and they’re not on the coast. Suddenly they’re in Florida, and as Kevin Nash, who [plays Troy Marshall] said, Florida always has a new story, and a unique story, every single day. And what’s not to like?
AX: And THERE SHE GOES, which is a dramedy?
SRIRAMAN: [It stars] David Tennant and Jessica Hynes, who are both incredible. Actually, sitting right behind you, you have our creative team on that show, Shaun Pye, who’s the writer [he credits his wife Sarah as co-writer], Clelia Mountford, who’s a producer, and Shane Allen, who’s the [comedy] commissioner for BBC. It’s a story about a family dealing with their daughter’s learning disabilities. It’s alternately funny and heartwarming.
AX: Wasn’t there a similar British show with Christopher Eccleston, which was also about a family with a child on the autism spectrum …?
SRIRAMAN: I think THE A WORD is very different. What THERE SHE GOES does is, it tackles it in a very raw manner, so there are parts that you laugh and you go, “I’m not supposed to be laughing.” And I think that’s what they pulled off, which is what I think made this show really special. I wouldn’t say it’s overtly comedic, inasmuch as it’s got a comedic tinge, and it feels very real. If you watch it, you’ll know it’s like nothing else that you have ever seen. It’s not sappy, nor is it ha-ha funny. It’s a show that tugs at me personally, and what I find very fascinating about this show – I watched it, and I loved it, and then I go, “How do you take something like this and bring it up to the world? It’s a tough subject.” So I had some people on our team watch it. The thing that surprised me was from the seventeen-year-old kid who was interning with us, all the way to the people who’d been in the industry forever, this is the one show that brought them all together. We’ve done shows from a well-known book, incredibly high production values, and I didn’t get that kind of passion across the board. And I went, “There is something about this show.” And everyone has connected with it.
AX: You’ve also got the third and final season of MUM, which started on BBC and then migrated to Britbox. Is that another one like BLETCHLEY CIRCLE: SAN FRANCISCO where Britbox made the third season?
AX: So do you look at it like, “What do we like that’s on BBC and ITV that they may not keep that we may want?”
SRIRAMAN: [laughs] No, absolutely not. No, on this one, BBC has it, too. The way we looked at it was, it just made sense for us to come in a show that we think is special.
AX: And you have the upcoming four-part drama THE VICTIM, which is set and made in Scotland …
SRIRAMAN: That’s right. It’s set in Edinburgh, but shot in Glasgow, and shot incredibly well. From when it aired in the U.K., there are articles of people complaining of seasickness, because of how [disoriented] they felt in watching it.
AX: Oh, because people who were familiar with both cities were like, “Wait, this should be there, and it looks subtly different”?
AX: Can you preview anything else?
SRIRAMAN: FATHER BROWN is back. It’s one of those. You’re either a FATHER BROWN person or you’re not. And we announced THE BAY, which is also very cool. It’s a Morven Christie original, it’s like BROADCHURCH. So that’s an amazing show. You’ve got the GAVIN & STACEY Christmas special with James Corden coming up, DEATH IN PARADISE …
AX: What aspect of running Britbox is most exciting for you?
SRIRAMAN: The shows. The shows, the shows, the shows. The fact that we get to put them all in the same place, and I get to watch them, over and over and over again. [Also], for me, it’s the fact that someone goes, “I did not know about MORSE. I knew about ENDEAVOUR; I did not know about MORSE.” That brings a smile to my face, every single time. We can introduce people to all these great shows. We keep adding new shows at every turn of the way, and keep thinking about new things, new categories we can expand into.
AX: Do you have favorites amongst what you’ve made so far?
SRIRAMAN: Last year, my favorite was LUMINOUS LONDON. It was a commission that we did, it was deliberately a slow-TV concept of going through the lights of London at Christmastime. It’s very calming and very beautiful.
AX: What would you most like people to know today about Britbox?
SRIRAMAN: That we are the home of British television. There is no one else.
Parts of this interview were conducted at the Content L.A. 2019 conference, and parts were conducted at Britbox’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive interview with BRITBOX Network President Soumya Sriraman